Tuesday, July 07, 2020

Why Melbourne's public housing towers have 'explosive potential' for coronavirus to spread

Nine Melbourne public housing estates are in their third day of a "hard lockdown", brought about by fears coronavirus has the "explosive potential" to spread within the units.

Victoria's Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton said the measures were in place because the environment was "desperately challenging".

That's because of a range of factors, like density, cleanliness and the jobs of many people living inside. High-density towers can be like 'vertical cruise ships'

We know one of the biggest weapons in stopping the spread of coronavirus is keeping our distance, and that the virus has more chance of transmission indoors.

Tenants in big apartment blocks often share facilities like lifts, corridors, rubbish facilities and laundry rooms — making the chance of running into someone higher.

Each one of the Melbourne tower blocks is home to hundreds of residents living in small units without balconies.

"Those towers have a large concentration of people in a small area," acting Australian Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly said on Sunday. "They are vertical cruise ships, in a way.

"And so we have to take particular notice and particular attention to make sure that the spread is minimised and that people are protected."

Sharon Lewin, leading infectious diseases expert and the director of the Doherty Institute, said tightly-packed apartment blocks could be a "recipe for transmission".

"When you get very dense housing, it becomes very hard to physically distance and stop any spread," she told ABC Radio Melbourne.

Advocates have pointed to this as a reason there should be more public housing.

Victorian Public Tenants Association executive officer Mark Feenane said while COVID-19 did not discriminate based on income or housing tenure, "overcrowded living conditions assist the virus to spread".

On Sunday, 27 cases had been detected across the nine towers in Flemington and North Melbourne, but Professor Sutton said he expected there would be more diagnosed in coming days.

That's the big reason behind the lockdowns — authorities are concerned about people who may be "incubating" the virus.

As well as the problems faced by residents of an apartment block in containing the spread, tenants have told the ABC about broken lifts making it "impossible" to safely distance.

Melissa Wehan, who lives in one of the Racecourse Rd buildings in Flemington, told the ABC it was "inevitable" the virus would spread in her block. She said there was a lack of hand sanitiser around the building, including in communal spaces.

"Our lifts only hold — if we follow social-distancing instructions — two people at a time. There's 180 apartments in every building, nine flats in every floor," she said.

Other tenants have expressed concern about the lack of information in languages other than English.

Housing Minister Richard Wynne said "significant deep cleaning" had been done across Melbourne's 47 high-rise public housing blocks since the pandemic began.

"You can be assured that the deep cleaning both of the common areas, the lifts and indeed the common walkways has been very significantly ramped up since the start of the COVID virus, for all of the obvious reasons of the potential vulnerability of our tenants," he said on Sunday.

He said he had also asked his department to "ensure that we have got all of the appropriate language information in place".

Tenants are likely to work public-facing essential jobs
The Doherty Institute's Professor Lewin said while the physical environment was one factor, it was just part of the picture.

"A lot of people in these housing estates in Victoria particularly, are in work that's essential, so they're often more likely to be exposed to infection," she said.

"You're more in touch with the public if you can't work from home, so exposure is probably a big risk factor here.

And if people are living with larger family groups, they're more likely to bring the virus home.

But authorities have been careful to not lay blame on the residents of the towers. "It's not about the people who are there, it's about the entire environment and the way that people interact and the issue of how easily this virus spreads," Professor Sutton said.

Another potential factor is that the virus is known to last longer on surfaces with lower humidity and less sunlight — so a Melbourne winter could play a part.

There's also concern about background health status. Residents of public housing are often immigrants, on low income or living with a disability.

On Saturday, the Deputy Chief Health Officer, Annaliese van Diemen, said that added another layer of concern.

"The first priority here is to find every case in those towers so that we don't have an explosion of infections in a highly vulnerable community and very high rates of hospitalisations and deaths because of the background health status of a large number of people in these towers," she said.

Authorities are hoping they'll get on top of it with testing
The lockdown will last for at least five days, which authorities are hoping will be enough time to test all 3,000 residents and process the results. It could then be extended for longer.

Under the "detention directions" given to residents, the state also has the power to detain people for a further 10 days if they decline to be tested. Mr Andrews said that was because authorities would have to "assume you are positive".

Some residents felt unfairly targeted by the sudden lockdown and were left unprepared and confused when police arrived to enforce the new restrictions.

Professor Sutton said the "early, if imperfect control" was key to getting on top of the virus and preventing deaths. He said without the lockdown, the virus "would have spread beyond these towers".

Meanwhile, cases outside of those towers are continuing to climb around Melbourne, with tens of new infections recorded each day.


Election results are tight enough that Scott Morrison and Anthony Albanese can take a boost from it

A status quo result in the hotly contested Eden-Monaro by-election has simultaneously helped to strengthen Anthony Albanese's leadership of the Labor Party while giving Scott Morrison a shot in the arm, having withstood a possible protest vote over his handling of the bushfire crisis.

Both leaders were carefully managing expectations in the lead-up to the first by-election of the 46th Parliament, conducted under the shadow of a once-in-a-100-year pandemic, in the most challenging economic conditions since the Great Depression and in a region still traumatised by the black summer of fires.

These contaminants make it even harder than usual to pick apart the result and determine which issue ultimately swayed voters.

ABC election analyst Antony Green handed the win to Labor — a huge relief for Albanese who personally picked Labor's candidate Kristy McBain and threw everything at this seat to defend it.

He could not afford to be the first opposition leader in 100 years to lose a seat to a government in a by-election.

Labor had always said that it would lose about 3 per cent of its primary vote with the retirement of the popular sitting member Mike Kelly.

It turns out the party's vote fell by just over 2 per cent according to the latest figures, to 36 per cent, meaning it had to rely on favourable preference flows from the Greens, Shooters Fishers and Farmers Party and the Nationals to fall over the line.

That the junior Coalition partner even contested this election irritated the Liberals, that the party may have helped Labor win the seat, is a source of serious tension. But more on that later.

A win is a win but this result once again highlights the major challenge for Labor, exemplified by Bill Shorten at last year's election. Its primary vote is simply too low.

While it may have been distorted, somewhat, by the huge field of 14 candidates contesting Eden-Monaro, Labor frontbencher Joel Fitzgibbon has openly conceded it's an issue, telling Insiders: "We do need to lift our primary vote and Anthony Albanese understands that."

But Fitzgibbon, who's from the party's right, has credited his left-wing leader with bringing Labor to the "sensible centre" and appealing to voters in regional Australia who have abandoned the party in droves.

"He was quick to jettison unpopular policies like franking credits," he told the ABC's Insiders. "He was quick to start establishing his bona fides with our traditional blue-collar base."

When asked if Albanese would lead Labor to the next election, Fitzgibbon responded "yes".

Equally, on the other side of politics, the Liberals are taking heart from the fact that the Coalition withstood the usual 3.8 per cent swing against a government in a by-election, even managing to ever so slightly improve its primary vote.

The bushfire crisis, together with McBain's personal profile, appears to have worked in Labor's favour along the NSW South Coast but the swings were largely contained, suggesting the white-hot anger directed at Morrison during the height of the crisis may have subsided.

That's possibly because of his handling of the COVID-19 crisis that followed.

But at a time when Morrison is enjoying sky-high personal approval ratings, some are questioning why that isn't translating into votes.

Indeed, the Newspoll results published in The Australian have already highlighted this issue.

Morrison's approval rating topped 68 per cent in the most recent poll but the two party preferred vote, showing the Coalition ahead of Labor 51-49 per cent, remains unchanged.

The PM didn't campaign nearly as much as Albanese in Eden-Monaro but it was his face on the corflutes outside the 70 or so polling booths, urging voters to back the Liberals.


Volunteer firies 'disenchanted' and 'disrespected' by bureaucracy

Volunteer firefighters are leaving the ranks in NSW and Victoria due to disrespect from city-based professional emergency managers, the bushfire royal commission has heard.

Volunteer Fire Fighters Association of NSW vice-president Brian Williams said fire control plans overlooked input from local volunteers, which they feared put them at increased risk of harm.

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements has heard volunteer firefighters are dissatisfied with professional fire managers.
The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements has heard volunteer firefighters are dissatisfied with professional fire managers.CREDIT:NICK MOIR

"The Rural Fire Service has become quite a city centric organisation and there has been a considerable loss of control at the local level," Mr Williams said. "Their [volunteer] input isn't valued like it used to be when we were under local government and they're tending to walk away and that's very unfortunate."

Volunteers do a "a very difficult, dangerous job" and the bureaucracy should "give them respect", Mr Williams said in a hearing of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements on Friday.

He said a "growing feeling that we're no longer important" had been felt across the Rural Fire Service volunteer ranks for a number of years and as a result "really experienced people are becoming disenchanted and they're leaving the service".

Volunteer numbers had also taken a "worrying" drop in Victoria due to a lack of respect for their ranks, according to Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria chief executive Adam Barnett.

"We've still got a healthy culture in Australia for volunteering, and the healthy recruiting numbers I think lend themselves to say people want to volunteer," he said.

"But when you start looking into the reasons why volunteers are leaving and certainly those reasons from an association point of view, the dissatisfaction about how they are treated, it's dissatisfaction about how they are respected and recognised."

There were 65,992 volunteers in 1998 in Victoria but that number had dropped to 53,311 in 2020, he said.

"Unfortunately we have experienced a significant, I guess, downward trend in the last five years and looking at the figures we've probably lost roughly around the same amount of volunteers in the last five years as we had in the 15 years prior to that. So it's certainly a worrying trend in the short term," Mr Barnett said.

Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades president Dave Gossage, from Western Australia, said volunteers had been "bullied" since local input had been diminished and administration of firefighting funding and regulations had been consolidated under the Department of Fires and Emergency Services.

"The department said to us that 'oh, you can have it so long as you come under our command and control'," Mr Gossage said. "That is just blatant bullying and abuse of power to actually use that, you know, control of the money to get people to come under their command and control."

Mr Gossage said the state bureaucracy created an "insulting" firefighting training system that ignored volunteers.

"In WA a system was brought in that created pathways for the paid people and then they said 'oh shivers, we forgot about the volunteers' and shoved them on," he said.

"But the way it was structured volunteers would always be subservient to the paid officers and that's insulting when we have volunteers who are running multi million dollar corporations and businesses and mines and all that being treated like fodder."


NSW curriculum review is a fail

Despite the Berejiklian government’s  ‘back to basics’ rhetoric, the NSW curriculum review is proposing a radical overhaul that isn’t based on evidence, but will make life more difficult for teachers and students.

The curriculum definitely needs to be improved. But while many of the minor proposals of the latest review are sensible, the suggested major changes will make matters worse.

The most radical proposal is to move away from the normal year-level curriculum to an ‘untimed’ curriculum, so it will “not specify when every student must commence, or how long they have to learn, the content of each syllabus.”

This would remove any absolute standard for what all students should be expected to achieve in each year; yet another downward notch for the already-low expectations in our school system.

Teachers’ work in the classroom will be made harder because apparently they will need to — somehow — deliver lessons to students working on different syllabi within the same class, depending on their progress. It’s already a constant challenge to teach lessons to students with differing abilities and progress when covering the same syllabus.

How could a teacher possibly be reasonably expected to teach many different topics at the same time in one class and track each student’s progress against different standards? It’s a recipe for even more red tape for teachers, who already suffer from a heavy administrative burden.

Proof that this idea isn’t a practical one is that the review cannot point to any high-achieving school system, anywhere in the world, that has an ‘untimed’ curriculum. Not one.

Another proposal is that the HSC will have less emphasis on exams and introduce a “major project” for each Year 12 student.

But take-home assignments like this are far less fair than exams in demonstrating proficiency of a subject. For example, students from disadvantaged backgrounds would have less access to parental help or tutors at home for their major projects. This would undermine the integrity of the HSC — which is arguably the most rigorous Year 12 certificate in Australia — and negatively impact disadvantaged students in particular.

The review itself acknowledges these potential equity problems, and the best it can say in response is that they are “probably not insurmountable.” So that’s alright, then?

The NSW government’s response to the proposals for an untimed curriculum and major projects for the HSC has been “support in principle” but “further advice will be sought.” We can only hope this is bureaucratic code for “not going to happen.”

A review is one thing, government policy is another. The NSW government has only itself to blame if it implements the review’s recommendations and school results fail to improve — or continue to worsen — despite more taxpayer funding.


 Posted by John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D.).    For a daily critique of Leftist activities,  see DISSECTING LEFTISM.  To keep up with attacks on free speech see Tongue Tied. Also, don't forget your daily roundup  of pro-environment but anti-Greenie  news and commentary at GREENIE WATCH .  Email me  here

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